Karma is often used interchangeably with Dharma, but there is a difference between the two. Karma results from our past and present actions and those we will perform, while Dharma is righteousness, a moral code of living. Dharma can also mean religion or belief system.
What is Dharma?
The Sanskrit word Dharma comes from the root word ‘Dhri,’ meaning to act. As addressed in Buddhism, Dharma or Dhamma also means ‘one that holds.’ Dharma is a philosophy as much as an ethical or moral way of living, and the belief is that when one lives a life aligned with one’s Dharma, one achieves happiness and well-being. Dharma, also meaning truth, is one’s path to liberation. It is the foundation of how one lives a pious life. It combines moral code along with spiritual discipline as guiding principles. Dharma is everything that holds the religious society together, prevents chaos, and does not let individuals get into unfavorable or harmful actions or company.
Dharma includes religious practices and duties like being honest, nonviolent, and following the four ashramas. More spiritually speaking, following one’s dharma is believed to bring one closer to the divine, material prosperity, and spiritual bliss. It brings one joy, peace, strength, protection, and equanimity.
What is Karma?
Karma is a seed of action, an impression that births action as much as determines the result of the action. There are various types of karma based on time of action, morality, and karma of individuals, collective beings, families, and nations. Based on values, karma can be good or bad. Any action that harms oneself or others is bad or negative karma and is believed to bring a similar consequence upon the soul. Similarly, an action that benefits others is good karma and brings back identical results. But karma is said to be time-bound and yet may work across lifetimes. In fact, karma is considered the cause of birth and death for those not yet enlightened.
Based on time of action, karma is of three types—Prarabdha, Sanchita, and Agami—based on whether the action has been performed and is already bearing results, is yet to be performed, or is going to be performed.
- Prarabdha karma is already manifesting results and cannot be changed.
- Sanchita Karma is a tendency or impression in the mind that has not manifested into action or matured. Spiritual practices and practicing dharma can eliminate Sanchita karma before it manifests.
- Agami karma is the one we are yet to perform or manifest.
Dharma and Karma—The Differences
When we think of God or godliness, we tend to equate it with one who gives justice. So the question that generally arises is, why do bad things happen to good people?
“Karma and dharma go hand in hand,” says Art of Living founder and spiritual leader Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “Karma is always dynamic, in the sense that there is perception and there is action. Karma means the action, its impressions, and its result. It has three phases—latent action, the action that is in process, and then the root of the action, or the cause of the action. All three things are a reality. The awareness of dharma helps in comprehending the strange ways of karma.
Whenever you see bad karma or someone suffering, you must help them. That is your dharma. If you do not do your dharma, then you incur bad karma for not having done your dharma. Take recourse to your dharma to transcend the bondage of karma and avoid getting stuck to events or personalities.
Karma is also always bound by time, because every action has a limited reaction. If you do something good to people, they will come and thank you; they will be grateful to you as long as they are experiencing the effect of your action, but not for ever. Our perception of suffering, of good and bad, is always relative. God does not come within the purview of relativity. He is the absolute reality—Sarva Sakshi—a witness of all that is.”
While karma is an action that can be either good or bad, dharma is a moral direction for karma to bear positive and auspicious fruits for the believer. Dharma dictates moral codes to be followed like one shouldn’t lie or steal, or one must pray, or one must do works of charity and uplift others, etc. While karma knowingly or unknowingly creates bondage, leading to suffering, living by one’s dharma is believed to create harmony within oneself and society.
Ancient texts also talk about nishkama karma and sakam karma, karmic concepts where dharma plays an important role.
Nishkam karma is an action done without keeping the fruit of action in mind, whether it will do us good or bring rewards. Dharma dictates one needs to follow nishkam karma to lead a happy life.
Sakam karma is an action done keeping in mind the fruit or result of the action. Therefore, Sakam karma is considered less desirable than nishkam karma from the point of view of dharmic philosophy.